Bringing up the rear

Sex experts think that more straight men are exploring a formerly taboo hot spot. We try to get to the bottom of it

Topics: Sex, Gender, Gender Roles, Love and Sex,

Bringing up the rearYoung couple embracing in bed asleep

I was sitting around the fire pit in my backyard with a handful of straight male friends when drunken conversation inevitably turned to sex. The perverted powwow officially began when one friend, let’s call him Freddy, announced something to the effect of, “Having your prostate milked is awesome.”

I nearly choked on my beer. Someone else chimed in: “It’s the male g-spot.” Another head nodded. A female friend walked into our circle at that moment and nonchalantly volunteered: “Yeah, my ex-boyfriend liked me to stick a finger in his butt.”

Well, then. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard young heterosexual men talking about being on the receiving end of a wandering finger, or female friends dishing on their male partners’ self-directed anal fixation, but the consensus in the room was startling nonetheless. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt like a sexual square.

Then, a week later, heavily circulated rumors (that have been completely unverified) alleged that R&B singer Usher’s unreleased sex tape showed him on the receiving end of sex with his wife (perhaps wielding a strap-on). It’s no secret that more Americans are having anal sex than ever before: A study published last year in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that more than 45 percent of women in their late 20s had tried anal sex. For my generation, the back-door option is like what the blow job was to the generation that came before — just a fun new taboo waiting to be broken. The phenomenon of heterosexual guys participating in all sorts of arse play is something different, though. I’ve seen female-on-male strap-on sex go from the sort of thing tittered about in women’s magazines to hearing a male friend once drunkenly blurting out in a bar that he loved it.

But I live in San Francisco; my sample is skewed. I set out to find some reliable data on the matter, but no such luck. As Debby Herbenick, a co-author of the study mentioned above and a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, told me: “There is no good national-level data on this topic.” Her research reflected that 11 percent of men in their early 20s reported having been on the receiving end of anal sex. But that survey didn’t specify whether there was a sex toy or penis involved, or if it was oral or digital stimulation.



Without solid stats, the best way to get some perspective on this phenomenon is to talk to sexologists. Charlie Glickman, a Good Vibrations sex educator, told me that he believed “more heterosexual men are discovering prostate and anal play with their female partners than ever before.” His colleague Carol Queen, a staff sexologist, says, “Lots of guys don’t talk about [it], but do it anyway,” and “plenty of heterosexual men include anal penetration in masturbation at least sometimes.” In the years after her educational X-rated video “Bend Over Boyfriend” premiered in 1998, it was the shop’s best-selling tape, and the top rental. Tristan Taormino, the sex educator behind several anal-focused porn flicks, including the “Expert Guide to Anal Pleasure for Men,” has noticed that guys are increasingly “feeling safe enough to explore their fantasies” in this area.

Part of this is due to the practice rising to mainstream awareness. In 2001, popular sex columnist Dan Savage held a contest to come up with a slang word to describe the act. The winner was “peg” (the runner-up was “bob,” as in “bend over boyfriend”). It’s a lot easier to talk about when you have a cute verb to describe it. Another major factor is that the stigma of receptive anal play as “a gay thing” has been somewhat lessened. I’ve seen defensively heterosexual guys boast about prostate stimulation; these are the kind of guys I’ve actually heard use the irritating I’m-not-gay qualifier “No homo” (as in, “I like your shirt — no homo”) — before I wallop them over the head. They haven’t adopted a more fluid understanding of sexual orientation or anything; they’ve just welcomed a new form of stimulation into their definition of acceptable straight sex. As Carol Queen joked, “I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve had to explain that it is the gender of the partner rather than the sex act desired that speaks to a person’s sexual orientation.”

It might also have something to do with a loosening of gender roles and what it means to be masculine. As my friend, and a fellow writer, Isaac Fitzgerald wrote in his personal essay, “Why I Agreed to Be a Bend-Over Boyfriend”: “My immigrant grandfather thought that clearing the dinner table was a womanly act. I reason that since I clear the table and do the dishes … [this]  doesn’t rob me of my manhood either,” he continued. “For me it wasn’t a sexual orientation thing, or a power thing: It was just a sex thing.” He’s easily one of the most overtly masculine men I know; and, indeed, there’s something macho about a straight man shrugging nonchalantly at the thought of a dildo in the rear.

Sexperts are quick to point out that there are more than just cultural factors at play here — there are also physiological facts. The prostate plays an essential role in ejaculation and is surrounded by two bundles of nerves that men have to thank for hard-ons. As a 42-year-old man told me after waxing philosophical about power dynamics inherent in partnered “p-spot” exploration: “The screaming orgasms are nice as well.” Oh right, those.

When I pressed my friend Freddy, a 30-year-old straight guy, for details, he said that he had received “oral stimulation” and “curious finger foreplay,” which he prefers. “The overall experiences have been great, a few ending in some of the most intense orgasms I’ve experienced.” Not all men who dabble see it as a route to toe-curling orgasm. Another 30-year-old man emailed me to say that it’s the psychological thrill that does it for him: “I’ll admit that part of the fun is the adventure of it: ‘I’m totally having weird sex right now and nobody’s judging me and it’s awesome!’ However, I would also say that this is among my least-shared details about my sex life. Only a few of my more progressive friends know about it” — well, until now.

As for the female side of things, my friend, and fellow sex writer, Anna Pulley wrote in a recent piece about her experiences with strapping it on for men: “I felt both amazed and overwhelmed at this steamy subversiveness, something that rarely existed in my normal, day-to-day life.” The 28-year-old tells me, “It’s one of the few acts where I totally want to high-five my partner afterward.” She points out that “men rarely get the opportunity to be vulnerable in sex.” On the flip side, women rarely get the opportunity to be penetrators. Virginia Vitzthum exquisitely described the appeal of taking on the male role in a piece for Salon back in 1999 — before we even called it “pegging”:

In a way I’d never understood those words before, he was mine. The knowledge I could really hurt this person by being less than careful made me feel responsible, protective. The vulnerability appalled me at the same time; it was vaguely disgusting that he would let someone do this to him. Mixed in with the disgust was possessiveness. The thought of anyone else penetrating him seemed revolting. These observations clicked into place in quick succession; I felt like a projector being loaded with slides of maleness, of male seeing.

While I was reporting this story, a male friend offered up his bum to me — for the sake of my story, of course. I laughed about the exchange to a female friend who replied, “You should totally do it. Have strap-on sex! I’ve wondered about doing that.” She had? Now, she’s no prude, but she certainly isn’t one of my more sexually adventurous friends. But, taboos change, and so do the cultural meanings of particular sexual acts. Just as the gay community has long debated the politics of being a top or a bottom, the hetero world is slowly catching up — or, um, bringing up the rear. As Pulley puts it, “We only have so many orifices. You’d think we’d all be itching to take advantage of them all, right?”

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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